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We've all been on trips where suddenly plans change, whether personal or business-related. The result is a scramble to quickly revise flights, change hotels, and handle tasks related to returning the rental car. You may assume that if you return early you'll get a credit for any unused days days, or if you return later than planned you'll simply pay for any additional days, but it may not always be that simple.

Car Rental Contracts are Contracts, even if Called Rental Agreements

The interaction at the rental counter may have been brief. For customers who are members of the car rental company's loyalty program, there may have been no interaction at all. However, both the renter standing in line and the renter walking straight to the vehicle entered into a contract with the car rental company.

The rental car company, for a comparatively small amount of money paid daily, provides the renter with the use of a very expensive asset. And it's true - rental car company statements consistently show less than $40 in revenue per vehicle per day. When a renter departs with a rental car, they've accepted all liability for an asset that might cost $30,000 or more to replace (with little thought).

Just like other forms of contracts, the rental agreement is about cost certainty for drivers and revenue certainty for rental cars providers. And like any other contract, the rental car company wants to hold the consumer to the contract.

  • A renter picks up a vehicle, follows rules, returns the car in the same condition, and knows the precise cost in advance.

  • The rental car company is offering the use of the vehicle, wants to see it returned at a set point in the future in the same condition, and receives payment for that use.

Given the contract between the driver and the rental car company, what happens when a rental is cut short or extended? Drivers should expect some modification to the cost of the rental, in the form of basic time and mileage (plus taxes and fees) and/or fees for modifying the rental car contracts.

If your trip is cut short or extended, the base rate for the vehicle might change.

AutoSlash reservations have a price guarantee as reserved. If a customer reserves a vehicle for a 24-hour day, the rate would be valid for the 24-hour day. If the vehicle is picked up early/late or returned early/late, the renter may inadvertently create a situation where the pricing changes.

We're frequently asked how subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes to reservations may impact pricing. The rental car companies throw a lot of variables into their pricing that we can help decipher. A partial (but not inclusive) list follows. For renters that:

  • Have a rental that requires a Saturday night keep but return before Sunday? Expect a much higher daily rate, as it's no longer a weekend rental.

  • Have a discounted rate that's based on three or more days but return after two? The discount is going to disappear (completely).

  • Have a weekly rental but return after five days? The base rate will still be a weekly rental, although the per-day fees often charged in airport taxes will be removed for unused days.

  • Have a six-day weekly rental but return a day later? The base rate will still be a weekly rental, although the per-day fees often charged in airport taxes will be added for the extra day.

  • Have a weekly rental but return after four or fewer days? That weekly rate will become a daily rate, and you might pay more.

There are a lot of scenarios where the rental rate may change solely due to the revision in dates and times. A renter still must consider the potential fees that might come from the rental car companies because of the reservation change.

Contract Modifications and the Fees Inherent

Not only may the delay rate change but there might be fees from the rental car company (Contract Modification, Early Return, and Late Return). These fees are not exactly new. In some way, shape, or form, these fees have been around for more than a decade! Really! Although the rental car company will ordinarily only charge for days used, there might be additional fees involved with changing the contract after pickup.

Early Returns and Late Return Fees

Remember those rental car contracts? If a vehicle is unexpectedly returned early, the rental car company may not be able to rent out for the additional day(s). Then there's depreciation, the vicious daily expense for rental car firms.*

If a vehicle is unexpectedly returned late, the rental car company might not be able to serve the next customer, especially among specialty or rare vehicle types. The rental car company gets stuck compensating the customer(s) who can't be served.

*  In my other life as a finance professional, I often hear accountants use the expression "depreciation is a cashless expense". Accountants clearly don't run rental car companies, which buy new cars and sell them as "very used" a year (give or take) later! In fact, depreciation and car disposition alone costs the average rental car company more than $10 per day, per car.

Dollar and Thrifty

Sister firms Dollar and Thrifty are the most transparent about the presence of their Contract Modification fees in their rental terms. The company charges a flat $10 to amend the rental agreement, then gets into the Early Return and Late Return fees. Calling in early is the key with Dollar and Thrifty.

Dollar and Thrifty each describe the Early Return Fee ($25, one-time) as being related to revenue management and applying when returning more than 24 hours early (a full day). Although the company won't bill the renter for unused days, the company also hasn't planned to rent a vehicle that's suddenly re-appeared early. Fortunately, the fee can be decreased simply by calling in to give Dollar/Thrifty more time to plan.

The late return fee can seem more punitive ($16 per day) but can also be decreased by giving Dollar/Thrifty more time to plan. The fee is in addition to the extra rental cost, as the failure to return the car on time can cause interruptions for many future rentals. That full-size van kept by a family for an extra week? There might be additional families and groups impacted by the single extension - only a Full-Size van accommodates more than 7 travelers in the North American rental car fleets, so there's no easy substitution.

Other Major Firms

    The guidance of the other major firms is similar - if there's an issue where a car rental contract may need to be modified, the renter should contact the rental car company immediately to minimize fees and other charges. The policies of the other firms aren't as complete as with Dollar/Thrifty, so changes should always be documented.

  • Avis charges a $10 service fee to modify contracts and starts applying the late return fee 7 hours after the scheduled return ($10 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance.
  • Budget (owned by Avis) also starts applying the late return fee 7 hours after the scheduled return ($10 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance.
  • Enterprise requires customers to contact the original rental location to modify a rental contract.
  • Hertz (which owns Dollar/Thrifty) starts applying the late return fee 12 hours after the scheduled return ($12 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance.
  • National only allows extensions for members of the Emerald Club loyalty program. Drivers should always enter their frequent renter numbers when making reservations, as agents may have more flexibility* with loyal customers.

* An agent recently retroactively applied an award day to one of my extended rentals, as the extra day was pricing at almost $100 before tax.

What are the Options for Extending a Rental?

Drivers, fortunately, have multiple options when looking to extend a rental. We frequently recommend the following steps to provide a price comparison:

Consider returning the first vehicle on-time and picking up a new one. Need a quick quote? Our system can send you a quote with discounted rates 24 hours a day. A quick set of quotes from AutoSlash would be useful before that call to the rental car company.

Call the Customer Care hotline for the existing rental. Ask about the total cost to extend the contract, which would include the extra days, taxes, and any fees imposed by the rental car company for modifying the contract. The basic fee for extra hours and days should already be listed on the rental agreement.

Knowing the potential cost of a new rental before calling the existing rental car company helps consumers make decisions as to whether switching vehicles would be worth the time and effort involved.

Policies of Rental Car Firms

While most rental car companies include provisions on contract modifications, a call to the company is always beneficial when seeking a change to rental terms:

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